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Editorial

Vroom dream!

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Wednesday 27th October, 2021

The government is behaving as if it had no problems to contend with. It is now talking about a proposal for the construction of a Formula One racing track, of all things, in Hambantota, of all places, while the country is struggling to replenish its oil supplies.

What has been proposed is a purpose-built circuit, according to media reports. The Cabinet will take up the proposed Formula One project for discussion soon, we are told. Don’t our ministerial worthies have any other important matters to concentrate on? The fertiliser crisis is far from resolved. Farmers are staging street protests and threatening to march on Colombo. Experts are warning of a drastic drop in the national agricultural output. Essential commodities are in short supply, and their prices have gone into the stratosphere. Public health experts have warned of another explosive spread of the pandemic in December and the possibility of another lockdown. The economy is in bad shape. But government politicians are living in cloud cuckoo land, dreaming of racing tracks!

The government should not be in a hurry to discuss the proposed F1 track, for there may not be any need for it. Unless funds are raised for oil imports urgently, or the petroleum prices are jacked up again, ordinary people will not be able to drive or ride, and the existing roads will be so deserted that it may be possible to hold car races on them.

It is said that the proposed F1 track will be a private sector project, which will bring in the much-needed forex, but we will have to wait for future Pandora Paper leaks to see who is really behind those who are said to be willing to invest in the racing track. There is the possibility of a fraction of the funds stolen from Sri Lankans returning to the country as investment. Private sector investors cannot be so naive as to invest in an F1 track in this country. They cannot be unaware how difficult it will be to have races held here, given the difficulties experienced by countries like Singapore, India, etc., with F1 tracks.

If the proposed F1 track is built by any chance, Hambantota will set a world record as the town boasting the highest number of white elephants. It already has an inland port with only a few ships. Hardly any summit has been held at the Hambantota International Conference Hall for years. The Sooriyawewa International Cricket Stadium is deserted, and its only attraction is said to be the bushmeat served in eateries in the neighbouring township. Then there is the Mattala International Airport, where deafening roars are heard more from wild jumbos roaming the area than from jumbo jet engines. Add an F1 track, and we will have a port without ships, an airport without planes and a racing track without cars! (Hambantota has an excellent road network which is almost deserted. Perhaps, the government may be able to use it as an F1 road/street circuit.)

Car racing is one of the main reasons for the collapse of the previous Rajapaksa government, which closed busy roads in Colombo and Kandy for races, and turned a blind eye to late-night drag races, which became a real nuisance to the residents of Colombo. The organisers of the racing events even disregarded protests by the Maha Nayake Theras. The rathagaaya (local slang for excessive desire for driving or racing) of the young members of the ruling family made that administration extremely unpopular.

Let the government be urged to concentrate on pandemic control to prevent lockdowns, take steps to eliminate corruption and make the country attractive as an investment destination by improving its ease-of-doing-business ranking. If the government leaders get their act together, foreign direct investment will flow in. This is what countries like Singapore have done to achieve progress. An F1 circuit has never helped develop a poor country.



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Editorial

Gas bombs and Occam’s razor

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Tuesday 30th November, 2021

Sri Lankans have a remarkable ability to forget. That may be the reason why Prabhakaran failed to achieve his goal despite all his bomb blasts on civilian targets. Zahran, in his wisdom, emulated Prabhakaran, carried out bomb attacks, but got nowhere near his goal posthumously. The local gas companies have gone a step further; they charge for causing explosions that kill people and destroy property!

It is in fear and trepidation that every Sri Lankan woman steps into her kitchen to cook up a storm as the danger of a firestorm lurks there thanks to the gas companies run by Zahran’s fat-cat cousins who have turned gas cylinders into bombs. Unlike Prabhakaran and Zahran, the gas mudalalis have benefited from Sri Lankans’ collective memory lapse. The brouhaha over gas explosions seems to have fizzled out.

The government has taken steps to have a few gas cylinders tested to find out why they cause explosions, and reports thereon have been referred to a national university. The matter has ended there to all intents and purposes. People are being urged to apply soapy water to the valves of gas cylinders they purchase to see if there are leaks. The onus has thus been shifted to the consumer! In other words, in case of a gas explosion, the consumer concerned will be blamed for not checking the valve of his or her gas cylinder properly—caveat emptor!

Hitler, wherever he may be, would feel ashamed if he knew the Sri Lankan gas company honchos have found a much easier way to snuff out lives than his huge gas chambers. The process of destroying lives here is very simple. A person walks, half-asleep, into his or her kitchen in the morning, and switches on a light … a big bang, and he or she is gone!

There has been a debate on the causes of gas explosions. Scientists have adduced several reasons. It is believed that the gas composition has been changed arbitrarily and the valves of gas cylinders, regulators, etc., cannot take the pressure of the new mix, and therefore they develop leaks, endangering the lives of the people. But, we, as laymen, prefer to adopt the philosophical rule—Occam’s razor, or the principle that the simplest explanation is usually the best one—in dealing with the ‘gas bomb’ issue.

The real problem, in our book, is the leaky valves of gas cylinders. No gas cylinder with a defective valve or any other defect must be allowed to leave the factory, but many of them have entered the market. Obviously, there has been a very serious lapse on the part of those responsible for testing cylinders; they and their superiors must be held accountable for allowing safety standards to be compromised, and endangering the lives of consumers. What has really caused the gas cylinder valves to develop defects is a matter that should be dealt with separately.

What needs to be done urgently is to suspend the sale of gas and interdict all those in key positions of the state-owned gas company for their collective failure to ensure the safety of the gas cylinders they sell. Otherwise, they will cover their tracks, and it will be well-nigh impossible to figure out how the unsafe gas cylinders entered the market. The culprits must be prosecuted for criminal negligence or wilfully changing the butane-propane ratio, exposing the public to danger, as claimed by some experts.

The precedent created by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI), which probed the Easter Sunday blasts should be adopted in apportioning the blame for the kitchen gas bombs, as it were. The PCoI says, in its report, the entire yahapalana government including the President and the Prime Minister must be held accountable for the blasts in 2019. Similarly, the incumbent government, which came to power promising to prevent blasts and save lives, the President and the Prime Minister must be held accountable for the gas bombs that turn kitchens into infernos.

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Editorial

Zorro back to zero

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Monday 29th November, 2021

Maithripala Sirisena did not want to remain a Cabinet minister in the UPFA government, which he left in November 2014 mainly because the Rajapaksas were riding roughshod over him. He ran for President and became Zorro, as it were, in Sri Lankan politics by defeating President Mahinda Rajapaksa. But, a little over six years on, he has chosen to stomach many indignities at the hands of the Rajapaksas and remain an ordinary MP in the current SLPP administration. Zorro is back to zero.

Senior Vice President of the SLFP Prof. Rohana Lakshman Piyadasa has gone on record as saying the incumbent dispensation has not done anything good for the people, and Budget 2022 is absolutely worthless. He has dubbed the government an edawela-tours administration—an outfit given to living from day to day. This is the general perception anent the government and its poor performance. Prof. Piyadasa has also said the SLPP MPs and ministers who are slandering SLFP leader Sirisena would not have done so without the blessings of the SLPP leaders, who, he says, could easily rein them in if they so desire. He seems to have read the situation accurately. Minister Prasanna Ranatunga has also asked the SLFP to leave the government, according to a report we publish today.

The SLPP’s popularity is on the wane, and the SLFP is trying to make the most of the situation to shore up its image and support base by criticising the government while being a part of it. The SLPP leaders have seen through the SLFP’s strategy, and it is obvious that their minions are carrying out a vilification campaign against the SLFP leader at their behest. The question is why the SLFP continues to be in the SLPP government?

Sirisena never misses an opportunity to boast that he had the executive powers of the presidency pruned down through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, and received international recognition for his contribution to strengthening Sri Lankan democracy. He says he is the only leader in the world to have let go of some executive powers. But he unflinchingly allowed the SLFP to vote for the 20th Amendment, which nullified the much-flaunted 19th Amendment.

The main reason Sirisena publicly adduced in justification of his defection from the UPFA in November 2014 to run for President in January 2015 was his abhorrence of the dictatorial rule of the Rajapaksa family, which, he said, had become a metaphor for corruption as well as abuse of power. Paradoxically, he also claimed that he, as the SLFP General Secretary at the time, advised the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa not to advance the presidential election because conditions on the political front were not favourable to the UPFA at the time. If Rajapaksa had heeded his advice, the UPFA government would have completed its full term, and Sirisena would have remained in it for another year or so despite its ‘corruption and abuse of power’!

When Sirisena was asked in a recent television interview whether he had joined forces with the Rajapaksas again because the factors that had led him to break ranks with them were no longer there, he said the situation remained the same. If so, why did he close ranks with the Rajapaksas? He claimed he did not tell the SLFP what to do, and had allowed the party’s Central Committee (CC) and parliamentary group to make decisions, and they had decided to back the SLPP. This, however, is not true; he does not allow his MPs or the SLFP CC that kind of leeway. After winning the presidency and taking over as the SLFP leader in January 2015, he forced the party to opt for a political cohabitation with the UNP so as to consolidate his position in the new government. The UNP had only 47 seats as opposed to the SLFP-led UPFA’s 142. Having done so, how can he expect the people to buy into his claim that he does not force his decisions on the SLFP?

The SLFP has today become as politically promiscuous as the SLMC and the Ceylon Workers’ Congress; it gets enticed by political kerb crawlers. In 2015, it offered its services to the UNP, and about five years later it opted for living together with the SLPP. It seems to be looking for a new partner? This is the fate that awaits any party whose leaders act out of expediency rather than principle.

S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike would turn in his grave if he knew what has befallen his beloved party.

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Editorial

Govt. backtracks on chemical fertilizer ban

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The President and his government has swallowed some nasty stuff of their own making and finally backpedaled on what was proclaimed as an ironclad ban on the import of inorganic fertilizer. The prohibition was announced on April 26 and rescinded seven months later on Nov. 24 this year; but not without tremendous pressure by the scientific/expert lobby and widespread farmer protests. The scientists were given a platform mainly by the print media and they argued their case cogently unlike those who backed the ban. The farmer protests were both angry and near desperate and had extensive television coverage, certainly from one television station. There was no doubt that scientists and people who knew what they were talking about presented a castiron case. Some agriculture bureaucrats quit their jobs in disgust. An agriculture professor from Peradeniya, who held office in various expert committees in the agriculture ministry was sacked, or that was how his removal was described. This academic who was part of the President Gotabaya-led delegation to the recent Glasgow Climate Change COP 26 summit – after his sacking perhaps because he was already in the UK at the time of the announcement – insisted he was not an employee of the agriculture ministry to be sacked from any of its agencies.

Be that as it may, most Lankans will wonder why the president stood tenaciously by the ban, reportedly recommended by Viyathmaga and Eliya, which worked hard for his election when the anger it provoked and the dangers it posed were plainly visible. Given the massive support the Rajapaksa ticket commanded in the rural hinterland, demonstrated most recently at the presidential election of November 2019 and the parliamentary election that followed, why the president did not relent sooner than later is inexplicable. Although that has now happened after months of agitation, it was predictably done in a manner to save what face was possible. No doubt Agriculture Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage, who had to eventually announce the policy reversal, took most of the flak. This though it is common knowledge that it was the president who was pushing the policy and the minister was no more than a loyal acolyte. But it has been remarked upon that demonstrators far preferred to burn effigies of Aluthgamage, who was the easier target, rather than those of the president and the prime minister although that too happened. Was there an element of funk to take on the bigger fish, at least as far as the president was concerned?

Most proponents of re-looking at the blanket prohibition were not opposed to a ‘green’ policy. Rather, they favored going slow on implementation, urging a step-by-step approach over a period of time. This after careful consideration of all factors involved rather than gut reaction. They stressed the blunder of attempting almost overnight imposition. Prime Minister Modi in India took longer than us to back out of his farm laws despite massive resistance. Here as well as there, there was no doubt about a presence of more than an element of political backing for and orchestration of the protests. But the responsible authorities, instead of clinging to an ironclad approach, should have paid due consideration to at least the physical evidence of the effects of blanket bans on both inorganic fertilizer and weedicides and pesticides. There’s no denying that the latter, apart from bad weather, played a part in the fall of vegetable production and consequent sky high prices. The government did itself no credit by attributing motives to opponents of the chemical fertilizer ban. It was alleged that one of them represented interests of fertilizer importers by sitting on the board of an importing company. True, but with the permission of the University employing him. It was also widely hinted that others were in the pay of such companies.

There is also the matter of the widely prevalent trust deficit between the people and the political establishment governing them. Sad but true, most people do not trust politicians regarding them to be corrupt, self-serving and taking decisions in their own personal and political interests disregarding vital national imperatives. But as has been repeatedly pointed out, most recently by the president himself, that the voters as we have often seen, re-elect those they have outright rejected. Then again the question of subsidies arise. The president is on firm record saying that the import of chemical fertilizer will be a private sector monopoly. The government has washed its hands of the business. But he has not explained how privately imported fertilizer is permissible on environmental considerations if government imports are not. He has also made clear there will be no subsidies for chemical fertilizers. The prices of these have hit record highs in the third quarter of 2021 and continued rising in November reaching levels unseen since the global financial crisis.

Our farmers have long enjoyed fertilizer subsidies and would clearly be unable to afford unsubsidized chemical fertilizers. Mr. Sajith Premadasa has made this point already after the government announcement on the import ban being lifted punching in the fact that the present rulers promised not subsidized but free fertilizer pre-election! Apart from the tilt towards organic fertilizers, government will not be able to afford many subsidies in the context of the present economic/forex picture. So there will be no return to square one. Regular columnist Rajan Philips has on this page said that the beginning of the end of the regime has begun but no there does not seem to be a new beginning for the country even if there is a change of government after elections. That seems to be a reasonable conclusion in the current context.

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